Thursday, July 31, 2008

Is this what we've come to?

All day today, I've been thinking about that bizarre story out of Western Canada about the bus from Edmonton to Winnipeg and how near Portage la Prairie, Manitoba one passenger suddenly and without warning started stabbing another passenger and then decapitated him.

It is not the gruesome nature of the crime that is shocking, although there is certainly an element of that. I don't think the "banality of evil," a term coined by Hannah Arendt, even begins to cover the concept. It is not just the nature of the crime which was committed without motive and with no reason, but also the fact the other passengers heard and saw the commotion and did not do a single thing to help the victim or to restrain the attacker.

I just don't buy the argument that the other riders were scared to do anything. There were more of them than this one guy with a knife. Of course he could have been stopped.

The "fear" expressed by the passengers on that bus was the same as the "fear" of the male students at L'École Polytechnique à l'Université de Montréal in 1989, at the time of the Montréal Massacre. 15, 20 male students or so could have stopped Marc Lépine? Maybe just one? The maniac orders them out of the room, and all of them obeyed -- every single one. Not one stood up to say no. Not one.

In the United States, in most states, the failure to act to save someone's life might -- in the appropriate circumstances -- be prosecuted as homicide by depraved indifference. Not murder one or even murder two, but a more serious charge than manslaughter. In Canada? The burden of proof is so high that it would be pleaded down to criminal negligence, if the prosecutor was lucky.

We tend to view these crimes as isolated incidents. I respectfully disagree. It's indicative of a much bigger issue ... the increasing lack of respect we have not so much for authority, but for each other. Whether we like it or not, we're becoming more and more like Americans in Canada and in ways I and many others do not like.

As I have from the age of fourteen, I continue to oppose the death penalty. But crimes like this, especially crimes of passion (or lack thereof) need special consideration by the courts. I would have no qualms about designating said suspect a dangerous offender if the evidence as we've heard so far is proven true in court.

One last thing: The bus company, Greyhound, notes that it would be almost impossible to implement airport style security along its bus network, especially when many of its stops are in isolated areas and are little more than shelters with automated ticket kiosks. That may be true, but it wouldn't hurt to have the occasional random spot check both at pickup points but also along the way. It would offer some assurance to paying passengers. Not complete assurance but enough to put confidence back in the system.

I agree with journalist Alexandra Kitty on this one -- we should be "Let's Roll" people, not "Duck and Cover" people.

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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Another 10 percent solution

I didn't much like MacGyver, but there was one episode that really stood out for me -- the "10% Solution." Seems MacGyver stumbled upon a plot to take over the five western-most states in the Lower 48 and to have them secede and reform as a neo-Nazist entity. When MacGyver said why not all 50, his nemesis said that Hitler's "Final Solution" went way too far in its attempts at world domination. Hence, they'd settle for five out of fifty states, or 10%.

I do not say this to impugne the motivations of the Conservatives here in Canada, in any way. I do this to make an argument about bending the rules to get one's way.

I note, as have others (including my colleague Scott Tribe, here) that the House of Commons has long had a rule that allows MPs to use their franking privileges to send flyers to 10% of any district -- even one not their own -- in addition to the two or three householders we get every year. All parties, and the independent MPs too, have long used this quirk in the law. Without prejudice, I too would call it a ten percent solution -- of sorts.

The only stipulation is that the flyers can only provide information about an issue or a party's perspective; it cannot actually attempt to campaign outside of official campaign periods.

Recently, however, the Conservatives seem to have found a way around this. They get ten of their MPs to send flyers to 10% of a targeted riding so as to get 100% coverage. All fine and good ... except they've chosen to pick ridings that just happen to be having by-elections right now to fill vacancies. Today, the Liberals filed a complaint about this practice. They demanded the Speaker of the House rule this too clever by half and to reimburse the house the cost for mailing those flyers out.

I'm beyond annoyed by the letters I get from my and other MPs which seem to be on an almost weekly basis. Most of you probably are too. But this one takes it to another level. By flooding propaganda into a district while a by-election is going on it appears to be an attempt to circumvent official spending rules.

It's up to the Speaker as well as the Chief Electoral Officer to determine whether the rules are being broken. But during a time when the ruling party is already under investigation for alleged spending irregularities (possibly putting its public financing at risk as well as the MPs that were elected under suspect circumstances), not to mention the government managing to run a deficit despite record high fuel prices ... one would expect a bit more caution from the Cons.

The Speaker can't wait until the House resumes sitting. We need a ruling ASAP. If the Conservatives are allowed to make ten plus ten equal one hundred then the other parties get to do the same. It is as simple as that.

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Knocking off zeros won't solve the Mugabe problem

In a truly desperate move to save itself, the government of Zimbabwe is revaluing its essentially worthless currency -- just days after it issued a 100 billion dollar bill (about USD 2) with, get this, an expiry date of December 31st of this year. The central bank has ordered ten zeros knocked off every price. So, for example, that 100 billion dollar bill will now be reissued as a ten dollar bill.

A five-to-one exchange rate is certainly much more manageable but it won't stick for very long. The problem with that country's continuing decline into the abyss can be summed up in two words: Robert Mugabe. He needs to go, after a clearly rigged election -- and merely offering Morgan Tsvangirai the prime ministership with Mugabe remaining as President will not instill confidence in the region.

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PNG dancers get green light

An update to one of my posts from last week ... after a bit of a tussle between the PMs of Canada and Papua New Guinea, the customs agency here in Canada this morning has agreed to allow the dance group from PNG to come to Canada, so says CBC Radio One. The group is on their way back to Canada and will arrive on Friday for a delayed four week visit.

All well and good, but this never should have happened in the first place. Customs agents should still have been more culturally sensitive, especially when someone deferentially answers "yes" to every question. Wars have broken out over much less important things, such as soccer and cricket games.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Melting, melting, melting ...

PMS can deny it. Televangelists can deny it. But pictures don't lie: The Arctic ice shelf is disappearing.

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Ted Stevens indicted

A lot of people's minds this afternoon are on the latest earthquake to hit Los Angeles, currently estimated at 5.4 but pretty close to the surface. Hope everyone's okay there, but I wanted to talk this day about the long awaited indictments against the long time Republican Senator from Alaska, Ted Stevens. He is to the GOP what West Viriginia's Robert Byrd is, a quintessential Senator Pork bringing in taxpayer largesse to an isolated state at the expense of the wealthier states who have much more pressing infrastructure needs.

Stevens, who is facing his first competitive election against a Democrat since -- well ever (his opponent this year is the very popular mayor of Anchorage, Mark Begich), has long been accused of taking kickbacks from companies for which he has done lobbying in Washington. (Search "Ted Stevens" at Josh Marshall's TPM and you'll see a laundry list.) The specific indictment today deals not with that, but unreported gifts-in-kind for repairs to his home that were unreported. There doesn't appear to be proof of a quid pro quo, namely mutual backscratching; but one should not be entirely surprised that the same Senator who's implicated today tried to stick America with a bill for the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere" which would have substituted for a perfectly adequate ferry service.

Stevens' fellow GOPers have leaped to his defense saying he is an essentially honest man. If he was honest, he would have disclosed the bartered items. No reporting suggests impropriety no matter how innocuous; and the Repubs are supposed to be the party of "ethics." Any barter, even if it's braces for a roof repair, should be reported with the net gainer reporting the in-kind difference as income. It's as simple as that.

If the GOP loses its stranglehold on Alaska, it will be very good news for progressives as well as politics in general in the Last Frontier. Forty years of the same old shtick isn't necessarily good especially when it comes from someone who, it appears, to have not practiced what he has preached.

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Monday, July 28, 2008

"Prince of Darkness" has cancer

He's had an attitude multiple times wider than his mouth and many times thicker than the ink of his pen. He's done some rather inexplicable things such as inexcusably playing a part in the betrayal of Valerie Plame, then losing his temper live on CNN. He's also criticized the official reasons for the Iraq war.

He also famously got into a behind the scenes war of words with Ted Turner, CNN's founder, when he as well as liberal staffers at the network (including Paul Begala) received the traditional ashes on Ash Wednesday. When Turner asked why so many people at the office were doing with s*** on their foreheads, Novak not only defended himself and Begala but also came close to ripping their boss apart.

Not too surprisingly, he called his memoirs which he published last year, Prince of Darkness.

But love him or hate him, it's hard to imagine Washington without Robert Novak. Today, he said he's indefinitely suspending his writing as he's going into treatment for a brain tumour.

Let's pray for a speedy recovery for him. Because it's simply impossible to imagine an election without his analysis any less than without Tim Russert's whose loss is still being felt even by those of us who have had reason to criticize both.

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Sunday, July 27, 2008

You're having Edwards' baby (?)

When I first heard about this on Friday night, I had to dismiss it as drivel -- after all the only sources were the National Enquirer and Fox News and you know that the second's existence would not be possible without the contempt for the mainstream press of the first, even though the two are separate media organizations (so they tell us!). The more one thinks about it the more one has to wonder if there is in fact something to the story about former Senator John Edwards allegedly having an encounter with another woman and fathering a child with her.

A security guard at a hotel in Beverly Hills confirms that early last Tuesday morning there was literally a "tug of war" between Edwards on one side of the men's restroom and tabloid reporters on the other. It was after 2 am in the morning. The guard then helped Edwards find safe passage out of the hotel.

Edwards says there was literally nothing wrong with his late night meeting between the woman, one Rielle Hunter, and her baby. Perhaps not. But there are two aspects of the story that I find troubling. First: Edwards is a married man with a cancer-stricken wife. Around this time last year, many had speculated he was dropping his run for the Democratic nomination when Elizabeth's cancer had returned and was now deemed incurable. Was it a cover story, or was something else going at the time? And how cruel would it be for him to do something so selfish in his wife's darkest hour?

Many view him as veep or Cabinet material. Some have even seem him as a potential Attorney General. Does this story put those plans in the kibosh? More important, with Ted Kennedy's terminal illness Edwards has emerged as the conscience of the Democratic Party especially on poverty issues. How does this affect that?

Second: Take a look at this story by Sam Stein written last September about some "behind the scenes" web videos that Edwards inexplicably removed from his pre-run website -- stuff even more innovative that what Obama was able to do in his successful run against both Hillary Clinton and Edwards. Stuff that is setting the tone for the kinds of campaigns we want today where we see the real candidates, not stuff run through a publicity machine to make someone look good.

The filmmaker of those videos was none other than Hunter herself. Edwards, it was reported at the time, met Hunter at a bar. (Oh how typical.) She received $100,000 for her work; however Edwards later said the videos were removed because (it kind of gets complicated here) some were done for free and current campaign rules in the US only allow for "in-kind" contributions maxing out at $5000. Which raises the question, why would someone be paid 20 times what something was worth? Sounds like a Southern version of Adscam to me.

And why were the videos really pulled? Is there some kind of embarrassing connection between Edwards and Hunter?

Personally, I hope not. The fact the LA Times banned discussion of the issue on its blogs and many of the so-called "liberal" newspapers won't even discuss the story suggests there is something very, very wrong here.

Public officials certainly do have a right to privacy and not hounded the way Edwards was nearly a week ago. But "deny, deny, deny" just doesn't cut it. In an election where there is so much at stake, and where Obama needs all the support he can get, it behooves one of his now most ardent supporters to clear the air once and for all. A simple DNA test should prove if Hunter's baby is his. How hard or simple can that be?

Lee Stranahan at HuffPo has some thoughts on this as well.

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Most ridiculous item of the week (2008-07-27)

You see them all the time -- televangelists and mediums both making predictions of what's to come. Some utter outright death threats, as Pat Robertson has for several world leaders over the years. Then there is psychic James Van Praagh.

A couple of weeks back on ABC-TV's The View, Van Praagh -- on live television -- gave readings to several audience members who wanted to contact dead relatives. So far so good (or bad, quite frankly; one should never contact the dead, in my opinion). Then off camera, he warned host and moderator Barbara Walters that he had a feeling she had serious health problems, including an elevated white blood cell count and lower back problems. Baba Wawa knew that was crap, and went to have herself checked out. She was all clear, and made a point of announcing that on television as well as recounting what Van Praagh told her.

Van Praagh took it personally, and then went on ET and spoke to the New York Post (yeah, reliable news sources!) and said BW was the reason Star Jones and Rosie O'Donnell left the show.

Judge for yourself. But throwing in Jones and O'Donnell was completely irrelevant. Say what you will of BW and how she's put off a lot of people over the years -- including those two women as well as Debbie Matantopoulos -- her health has nothing to do with her style of reporting. It is as almost if Van Praagh wants Baba Wawa dead. If he does, he should have said it out loud, not off camera or in insulting insinuations on the Mary Hart show.

Yes, I've wished some people to die -- Robert Mugabe and Than Shwe for two. But that's because I believe they deserve to be assassinated. Members of the Fourth Estate, as faulty as they may be, deserve more respect than that and Van Praagh should be more honest about it.

So do physicians ... to think Walters would be faulted for wanting to check things out is just as appalling as when Tom Cruise slammed Brooke Shields for using anti-depressants to deal with post-partum depression.

Then again, Van Praagh must be a redneck.

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Saturday, July 26, 2008

Two more US banks fail

There is one more note I wanted to make light of today. Late last night, federal regulators in Washington seized two more regional banks in the Southwest -- 1st National of Nevada, and 1st Heritage Bank. They were immediately flipped over and purchased by the banking division of Mutual of Omaha Insurance -- yes, as in Wild Kingdom.

It's good to see the government act when it's supposed to and that depositors in this case won't lose any money; unlike IndyMac where thousands of depositors over the limit will only get fifty cents on the dollar, if that. But the Fed has had to seize seven banks so far this year and has said about 90 more banks (out of about 7000) are in really big trouble. Wipe out the trust account for deposit insurance and the markets could really go into a tailspin.

We shouldn't be too complacent in Canada that our banks are totally safe. They aren't, just safer. But many of us have a clear memory of the 1980s when Northlands, Canadian Commercial and Continental fell like dominos; followed by the BCCI fraud (and the embarrassing situation of Canada and other democracies having to bail out foreign embassies which made BCCI their deposit bank in the countries hosting them -- when deposit insurance was meant for nationals and corporations of the home countries only).

They were relatively small failures. Now imagine if we defy kismet and one of the Big Six -- or even a trust company or mortgage lender within their respective families -- should actually fail.

Oh mamma.

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Blog of the day: Counterfeit Dreams

Not much to comment on this Saturday, so I make a suggestion to a blogging site you may want to take a look at: Counterfeit Dreams, a man's 35 year stint in the Church of Scientology and his struggle to break free. Not just any man, but Jeff Hawkins -- someone who part of the marketing team that made L. Ron Hubbard's book Dianetics a best seller in the 1980s more than three decades after it was first published. After putting the blog in my RSS reader this morning I scanned through the story so far -- still not complete as of this writing.

My observations about Hawkins' tale to date: I note with a bit of discomfort how an organization very tightly run by Mr. Hubbard became even more so when David Miscavige [or Miscaviage, I've seen both spellings in published works] took over the group. This has been told by many including former record publisher Karen Pressley who herself spent 20 years in the sect, and Tory Magoo Christman -- just to name two.

The concerns many have said about Scientology are out there on the Web -- just Google or Yahoo "Scientology" and "criticism" and you'll get thousands, maybe millions of links. My own criticism comes to this: How is it that most churches, most religions, put their most basic beliefs out front for people to peruse at little to no cost, and absolutely obligation to join; and yet this group requires one to spend years of time and certainly quite a bit of money and auditing to get to a level where one gets the right to learn about those beliefs?

If Scientology wanted the world to know what they believe is the truth then put it out in the public domain and let people decide for themselves. The Bible is available for free online, why will Scientology not make OT III et sequens available for free on its website?

Many claim they've found fulfillment in Scientology and I'll let them have that. Many others have said they've felt emptiness or betrayed, and they should be able to tell their stories too without fear of harrassment. If that makes me an SP (suppressive person) in the eyes of Tom Cruise and his brothers and sisters in the group, fine. Believe me, I've been called much worse things -- by my own family and other people I thought were my friends.

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Friday, July 25, 2008

Chaser's APEC stunt still very funny

It's been nearly a year, I know, but this one still gives me the laughs ... and the shivers: Aussie comedy team and muckrakers The Chaser's War on Everything, and their stunt breaking into security at the APEC summit. Remember when "Osama Bin Laden" showed up as part of PMS' delegation?

With today's news that Canada has gone into deficit for the first time in eleven years, thanks to an irresponsible cut in the GST (rather than an income tax cut which would have been more productive), one wonders where all the money we've spent on security has gone here in this land; especially now we're no longer on PAYGO and we'll have to borrow the money to pay for security -- from somewhere. Oh, say, Mainland China. We need somebody like the Chasers here to expose them for who they are.

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Labour loses another "safe" seat

This cannot be good news for the British Labour Party. For the third time in three months the ruling party in the UK has lost a by-election; this time in Glasgow East. The separatist Scottish National Party won one of the safest seats for Labour by a fairly comfortable margin. The swing from the general election was 22%. If this is repeated in the next general election across the country, Labour stands to lose all but one seat in Caledonia ... and that seat doesn't belong either to the PM, Gordon Brown or to the Chancellor, Alastair Darling who are both Scottish.

On top of Labour's losing the mayoralty of London, all signs point to huge trouble for Brown who's barely able to justify staying on as leader just a year after he was finally able to wrest control of the party from Tony Blair. And where are the votes going? Well, besides the separatists -- the SNP in Scotland and Plaid Cymru in Wales -- a big chunk are going to the Conservatives who despite their name are actually the direct opposite of their Canadian cousins.

Under their new leader, David Cameron, the party has undergone a complete overhaul -- emphasizing quality of life and improving public services (what was once called "one country Conservatism" until the Thatcherites took over), and interestingly energy independence and a clean environment, with hard targets to meet. They no longer oppose the regional assemblies in Cardiff and Edinburgh; and in fact now say that only English MPs should vote on English issues -- which if implemented would make the UK close to a truly federal state. They now accept the independence of the Bank of England (which they once opposed as well). They have even gone so far as to change their logo, dumping the long familiar torch with a green-leafed tree to emphasize its green policies.

In other words, like other ideological parties forced into the wilderness by the electorate, the Conservatives have attempted to listen to the people -- and have made themselves a once again viable choice. What is interesting about it all is that this the first right-wing party I'm aware of for quite some time to move to the centre. In much of the world -- Canada, the United States, Australia -- when the left wing has moved to the centre the right has moved even further to the right. Who could have imagined someone on the right would embrace many of the elements of the Third Way, while Labour which ran on it has now essentially dumped it and gone back to its old ways?

Have the UK Cons moved enough? Maybe not enough for some but certainly enough for enough people, that they now pose a serious threat to Labour. PMS may want to take some notes here -- it is pragmatism, not hard ideology, that normally wins elections; but if you push your ideology too hard you'll wind up alienating people to go in a different direction or not to vote at all. Harper needs to take a hint from Cameron, and starting acting like what conservatives used to be in Canada -- and not as a Republican.

Some by-elections are coming up here in Canada as well. If the Liberals win, expect the Cons to say they were expecting to lose in "safe" Liberal seats. They should instead view such a loss to whichever party may win as a sign that they need to act up and rule for all Canadians and not just the oil companies in Calgary and the televangelists in Lethbridge.

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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Forget Brussels?

Barack Obama certainly hit all the right notes today at a mass rally in Berlin -- emphasizing cooperation as opposed to the divisive policies of the current US administration. Among other things he cited the success of the European Union.

But I'm not the only one asking why his whirlwind world tour does not include a stop in Brussels, where the European Commission is located. You'd think he'd want to press the flesh with the people who make most of the decisions that matter on the continent.

Just an observation ... especially now the Eurozone is more powerful economically than the States. Healthy, not destructive, competition is important; but it's also important to know who your allies are and how to keep them.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008


When a hunter shoots a bear, the hunter leaves the cub pack alone -- if the hunter knows what's good for him or her. The same goes for the Mafia -- they will kill one of their enemies but not that person's family. Even most powers that be know when to leave well enough alone unless you're Macbeth.

Of course, street gangs don't abide by those rules. We learned today that Jordan Manners' mother, Loreen Small, and Jordan's sisters were shot at last week. They all survived but it was close.

Yes, it's a rough part of Toronto, Jane-Finch. The particular street in question is one many delivery places simply refuse to deliver to after a certain time at night for security reason. But does anyone seriously believe it's just a coincidence that the rest of the Manners family was targeted like this? I mean, seriously.

I believe people aren't born hating, they acquire it. Someone has to break the cycle of hate and violence before a vibrant although troubled part of Toronto becomes a ghost town.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Tolerating insensitivity at our borders

The vast majority of us in Canada, even yours truly, have been guilty at one time or another of racial or ethnic insensitivity. Most of us, however, learn from our mistakes. This one could be very costly for Canada.

A group of dancers from Papua New Guinea, or PNG, was supposed to come to Canada for a four week cultural exchange with the Shuswap nation. Instead they were interrogated for four hours from some really stupid border agents who didn't realize that the group was speaking Tok Pisin, or pidgin -- a type of Creole . A phrase such as "Me like work 'em a sing-sing" means "performing a song," or "car no more bin sit down along here" means "no parking," and so on. The tragedy of errors escalated to the point where the border guards thought the dancers were paying for their visit here by getting work, or were otherwise unsponsored -- and were ordered to go back.

The PM of PNG, Michael Somare, has fired off an angry protest letter to PMS warning the country may ban Canadian companies from doing business there (which, given their vast natural resources would hit primary production companies operating overseas hard), and will also file a protest with the United Nations. Oh that would be nice -- a fellow Commonwealth member which also recognizes Betty Windsor as sovereign, a developing country with continuing internal problems not the least of which is a multi-year civil war on the island of Bougainville, placing sanctions against a developed country.

Not surprising, really, given Harper's refusal to sign the Convention on Aboriginal Peoples or even to place it to Parliament for ratification. Not surprising, given the xenophobic attitudes of many Con MPs and Senators as well as a large chuck of the rank and file membership. Not surprising, given many people at the customs agency (the report is unclear as to the seniority of the inquisitors or whether they were just summer students) have been known to detain people from Austria, a EU state, because their passports are marked Republik Österreich with no English translation other than on page three -- and if they can't or don't want to read German (let alone Pidgin) then their basic training is even more stupid.

Maybe some cultural sensitivity training is in order. Or perhaps Harper should be sent out to the battlefields in Bougainville to fend for himself for four weeks. Maybe then the message would be sent from the top down that this kind of BS is not tolerable any more than that Taser™ incident last year against someone who was from an EU state. Honestly, I'm surprised the shock devices weren't used in this case -- given the attitudes of Border Services the last little while, it could have gotten to that point.

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Monday, July 21, 2008

Wardrobe malfunction OK'd by appellate court

Some good news today for free speech, as the US Third Circuit Court of Appeal -- which covers Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and the Virgin Islands -- overturned the FCC's $550,000 fine in the 2004 so-called "wardrobe malfunction" incident (applied to the 20 stations directly owned by the network), saying that the fleeting nudity which lasted less than a second could not have been construed as obscene. It also criticized the FCC's claims that it had received hundred of thousands of complaint letters, pointing out an honest audit showed 85% of them were form letters from single interest groups and that some people complained as many as 37 times.

In any case, the court said, CBS could also not be held responsible for a show that was independently produced by its sister company, MTV; nor could it know in advance the stunt that Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson were going to pull on live television. Had it been on tape, it would have been of course a different story to argue.

No doubt right wing groups will crow that this proves the need for a time delay of a few seconds to censor "obscene" content. But obscenity is in the eye of the beholder and most people, the vast majority didn't see what the big deal was. We're talking 9/16 of a second here. And it wasn't even a bare breast, Janet was wearing a nipple ring for heaven's sake!

If you put tape delay on sporting events that gives crooked bookies and even legitimate gaming houses in Las Vegas the chance to manipulate betting lines on the go. And if you tape delay that, then you have to do the same for news events -- and we've seen how the White House and right wing consultants such as Hill and Knowlton manipulate the media and the rest of us through those so-called "video news summaries."

If the fine is reinstated by the Supreme Court (and who knows how these things work), it should be the people responsible for committing the act in the first place -- Jackson and Timberlake -- who pays the fine, not CBS or MTV. All in all, however, a victory for free speech. We should expect the unexpected on Super Sunday and it's time for the prudes to lighten up. If this was done at the halftime show of the World Cup Soccer final, after all, no one would give a damn.

Certainly not in the States, where the recent Euro 2008 final got a 3 rating -- meaning 3% of households watched. Compared to Europe, where a "game of the week" routinely gets an 80 rating.

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BREAKING NEWS: Karadžić Arrested

About. Effing. Time.

This should accelerate Serbia's application to join the EU quite a bit. My guess is that it will join its long time enemy Croatia as the next members of the bloc sometime in 2010 or 2011, presuming some way can be found around the current stalemate about the Lisbon Treaty.

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Dangerous prisoner to get "upgrade?"

Even a lot of women are getting annoyed by a certain tampon commercial with the tag line, "Upgrade." But this is the kind of upgrade that would offend a tampon itself.

This couldn't be happening in Canada. Well, actually it is. Alan Légère who is serving several concurrent life sentences for five murders and several rapes, may actually be upgraded from the SHU (Special Housing Unit), or Supermax prison, at Sainte Anne des Plaines near Montréal and moved down river to a maximum security prison in Port Cartier, near Sept-Îles. People are up in arms about this, especially in New Brunswick where he is known as the "Monster of Miramichi City."

For those too young to remember, a background. Back in 1986, Légère murdered John Glendenning, a shopkeeper in Black Water Bridge, and injured his wife. This trial became famous as it was the first time in Canadian legal history that DNA evidence was used to pin down the killer. Three years later in 1989, Légère deliberately punctured his eardrum to get a trip to a prison hospital on Moncton. He convinced guards to let him use the washroom alone. Using a concealed piece of television antenna, he picked the lock on his handcuffs and bolted.

Légère then went on a killing spree. He sexually assaulted and killed a 70 year old woman, then killed two middle aged sisters before burning down their house, and beat to death a Roman Catholic priest. Finally he sexually assaulted and beat another woman and left her for dead but she survived. After seven months, Légère was captured again and placed in Supermax.

I personally tend to be rather lenient in my attitude towards non-violent and victimless crimes. As I've noted previously, I think simple possession of illicit drugs without intent to traffic should care a fine and not prison time. I also support decriminalizing prostitution to ensure street workers are as safe or safer than the consumers of the "world's oldest profession." Where prison time is warranted for a non-violent offence, I don't have a problem with the so-called "Club Feds" for a first stint in jail. Subsequent visits, however, should mean a higher level of security starting at minimum.

When it comes to violent offences however, especially sexual assault, I think the law should throw the book at the offender if the evidence proves the act was commissioned or omitted. It's these types of people for whom parole should be granted under the strictest scrutiny. Repeat offenders should not get parole at all, and I do support "three strikes" for repeat violent offences.

I am absolutely appalled that our Correctional Service would even consider giving this guy a chance to go from Supemax to Max even if he has been under good behaviour. It is possible to escape from a maximum security prison, as has been proven multiple times. The SHU was designed for the worst cretins of our society such as him and Paul Bernardo among others. Miramichi was put through the wringer not once but twice. They shouldn't have to go through it a third time -- and the rest of Canada shouldn't have to worry about people like him roaming their communities either.

No government, right or left wing, should even give this guy the time of day. I say let Légère rot in the SHU. Don't even give him the dignity of a burial when he ultimately dies -- just cremate him on the spot and bury the ashes inside the prison walls so we don't have to breathe his evil fumes.

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Sunday, July 20, 2008

"We were not misquoted"

It started with CENTCOM -- the US Central Command which overseas operations in the Middle East (except Israel), Northeast Africa and much of South Asia -- sending the White House that article I mentioned yesterday from Der Spiegel. The White House then wrote up an internal statement about it but accidentally forwarded the e-mail to its media mass list rather than as an internal e-mail; but it was too late, by suppertime on the East Coast yesterday most of the world knew that Nouri al-Maliki wants US troops out of Iraq and he thinks Obama's 16 month plan is just fine by him.

A "spokesperson" for Maliki tried to backtrack saying there was something lost in translation but the damage was done. For its part, the magazine today said it stand by its story and that they understood exactly what Maliki meant..

A few points. First, yesterday, I gave Spiegel less credit than it deserves -- I was somehow thinking of Stern, which became infamous for the phony "Hitler Diaries" and took years to rebuild its reputation. Der Spiegel is actually seen by some in the same class as Time or Newsweek, although like any news organization it has made some classic gaffes.

Obviously, I regret this error on my part.

Second, it puts the US in a very difficult position, not just the McCain campaign. During the last Gulf War, the Americans insisted they were seeking no permanent bases in Saudi Arabia or its neighbours and they would leave when requested by the host governments. They're still there, of course -- which proved useful for the present war as the launching pads already existed.

But now, in a war designed deliberately to depose a legitimate government (no matter how despicable) and create one more "favourable" to Western oil interests, a government that is now to Americans' dismay also cozying up with Iran in part to jack up oil prices (precisely what many warned), the US has a choice. If it acquiesces to a formal request by a supposedly sovereign government, the Pentagon will be accused of appeasement and "cutting and running" by neo-cons. If it refuses, then it will confirm what many of us have believed all along, that the Iraqi government as created by the US-UK cabal is a puppet regime answerable only to the executives in Washington DC and London, not the citizens of Iraq.

If Dubya is planning a sudden mass withdrawal as an "October Surprise," he's doing a very good job denying it. It just won't happen. As for McCain, he hasn't answered the simple question -- if Iraq asks the US to leave, will it? All indications point to his saying "no," that the Iraqi government is controlled by extremists so any general previous promise to withdraw upon request doesn't apply. Does that mean that McCain thinks the US should reserve the right to intervene in Iraq's internal government, shape its foreign policy, determine who can get oil leases, and even change its leader if and when it sees fit? Two words: Platt Amendment.

Third, and most obvious, Maliki doesn't know how or when to keep his mouth shut. America had problems with Iyad Allawi but he wasn't exactly beloved by his fellow Iraqis either -- not just for corruption but also for extra-judicial executions he himself performed and the fact he is a dual citizen of the UK (which led to further suspicions he was nothing but an adjutant of 10 Downing Street).

But Maliki seems to have forgotten the general rule of non-interference with other countries' affairs, at least openly. One can obviously have concerns about how another country or region is run but these are usually done by back-channel communications. One can appreciate Maliki's frustration at the quagmire his country has become, but to endorse Obama in everything but name is almost unprecedented for a Middle East leader, or any leader, in my recollection.

(Yes, I am aware of the time Queen Elizabeth got punked by a Montréal radio station back during the 1995 referendum, but she honestly thought she was talking to Chrétien, not some jokers.)

All in all, the article in question only adds more spice to an already intriguing campaign. All I can say is that it's refreshing to hear a world leader actually speak the truth for a change; even if protocol suggests he really shouldn't have, yet.

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Eighty-eight plus one

If it's not the Taliban's knowledge of the lay of the land that will do in the Canadian mission in Afghanistan, it will be those nifty contraptions called improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. Cpl. James Hayward Arnal of Winnipeg, 25, was killed by such a device Friday while on foot patrol. He is the 88th soldier Canadian to die in the line of duty, along with one diplomat, since the mission began.

While one can still support the mission in principle, as many like I do, one can also support the troops without necessarily supporting the reason why they're there, or else can strongly object to the course of the mission and how long it's taken. There is nothing unpatriotic in doing so. Like civilian programs, we have a right to know if we're getting value for taxpayers' money.

Maybe it is the nature of the war, but I think people in the West have the right to demand why it's taken longer to defeat the Taliban than it did to win a war against both Germany and Japan, a war multiple times in scope, many times more expensive (adjusted for inflation) and fought on countless fronts. Instead, we get these "Red Flag" days and the suggestion if we don't support the war we're not supporting the troops and therefore we're not patriotic.

Death does comes with war. It's just part of the beast. There is a difference between dying with honour in a just war and dying in a cause without reason.

Without compromising security considerations, I think Canadians should be getting regular updates from our Prime Minister (as recommended repeatedly by the Senate) about the course of the mission and where we are in terms of deterrence, diplomacy and development. The silence on all three indicates we're failing on all of those items on the checklist and that the PM is willing to tolerate increased deaths without any significant progress. That is simply unacceptable. It is not acceptable that Canada has secured Kandahar City proper, the Americans Kabul -- and the rest of Afghanistan is in anarchy.

I personally think the tolerance threshold will be one hundred deaths. Once we pass that mark, it will be only then that Canadians will say enough is enough. Until we reach that mark, another eleven families will have to go through the grief of burying another loved one lost to a battle that is becoming untenable and utterly pointless.

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Saturday, July 19, 2008

They got Capone for tax evasion ...

... so they should get Karl Rove for contempt of Congress.

Let's see Bush pardon Rove for that.

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Did Maliki really endorse ... nah

If only this is true ...

One doesn't normally consider the German magazine Der Spiegel to be a reliable resource on much of everything, especially when it has a content to advertising ratio of 2:1. According to the English edition of the rag, Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki says that a 16-month withdrawal plan as pushed by Barack Obama may be the right one. While he made clear he's not endorsing anyone for US President, he said that the indefinite timetable suggested by John McCain is problematic.

Let's presume for a moment the story is accurate.

Whatever appearance may be created by the alleged "success" of the "surge," the fact is the longer the US and its allies stay in Iraq the longer the civil war is going to go on and that continues the drain on the world economy and helps keep oil prices high. While it is encouraging that oil above $125 is getting people to make wiser choices, the fact is the US government won't even be able to fund the shift to greener sources as long as it borrows money from Mainland China and Singapore (dictatorships) to fund a war in a country with a "democratic" and "independent" govvernment in everything but name.

I'll demur to Josh Marshall on this one for further comment; but it definitely puts McCain on the spot.

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What was Fantino thinking?

Police officers have a duty to both uphold the law as well as to maintain order. The two can actually conflict at times, but the vast majority of those officers do not cross the thin blue line between protection and endangerment and I suppose we should all be thankful for that. New revelations about last summer's confrontation with Mohawks in Deseronto, Ontario, which shut down the Toronto-Montréal rail lines and caused chaos on the 401 suggest cops don't always practise what they preach. This isn't a new phenomenon, but I didn't exactly expect that the bad behaviour would come from the Chief of the Ontario Provincial Police, Julian Fantino.

There are two points worth considering. One, a wiretap was obtained without court authorization. This is permitted under the federal Criminal Code but it was intended to be used in extremely rare circumstances, such as evidence that a terrorist attack is imminent. It was never meant to eavesdrop on private conversations between peaceful protesters such as those at Deseronto, as the CBC is now reporting actually happened. This sounds like the Big Brother approach the FBI took after 9/11 when they sent in agents to infiltrate American peace groups (as was documented in Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11). It also sends the message that one can have an opinion as long as it agrees with that of the government of the day. There is nothing wrong with a peaceful protest in my opinion if it clearly makes its point, and organizers of a peaceful event should be allowed to do so without being eavesdropped upon.

Two, we now know based on preliminary hearing testimony that Fantino warned Shawn Brant who led the protest that the OPP threatened to remove the protesters, including Brant, by force if need be -- in direct contravention of the force's own guidelines put in place after the fiasco at Ipperwash Provincial Park. When Fantino was asked if his threats amounted to a violation of those guidelines, Fantino said they were only guidelines and not official policy.

Be that as it may, I am offended that the protesters pulled back their blockade for reasons other than as an act of good will and faith (that is, they did not do so voluntarily but under duress); and that Brant is facing charges based on something other than the accusation he broke the law. A reasonable person may very well ask what laws were being broken if the police were acting this way. If the police themselves violated the law and procedures does that then cancel out any evidence collected improperly? It also lends credence to the land claim in question and for just and proper compensation if they were previously cheated out of their land.

I really don't care if Fantino's attitude was hardened by the ongoing situation with the Mohawks' brothers and sisters at Six Nations. They are completely separate land claims (claims in the plural) from the claim(s) by the Deseronto band, and need to be dealt with separately based on their own individual merits.

Aboriginals, as well as the rest of us Canadians, deserve better than this from our police. If we want to build bridges it requires good faith on both sides, not hatchets in hiding.

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Friday, July 18, 2008

We don't need no Prue-ducation!

Michael Prue, the former mayor of East York (before it was swallowed up by the mega Toronto) and currently the Ontario NDP MLA for Beaches-East York announced he was running for the party's leadership. No sooner that he did that, than he sublimely suggested that the province might want to open up the debate on whether there should be still be two publicly funded systems -- one non-denominational, one for Roman Catholics.

Didn't we have an election last year that revolved around the school funding issue and whether public financing should be extended to all religious schools? And wasn't that resoundly rejected by Ontario's voters?

If we're really going to revisit this issue and so soon then it should be done through a focused referendum, preferably held at the same time as the 2010 municipal elections so as to cut down on administrative costs. (I seem to recall the voters of Newfoundland had to go through the exercise twice in the space of less than three years -- first, to set up a parallel public system; then second to abolish the confessional schools altogether.)

Besides as a publicly funded system, the Catholic schools are open to all. This is something opponents of Catholic schools seem to forget. Back in my high school days, I had classmates who were members of some Protestant denominations and in no way were they ostracized by the rest of us. We simply didn't care -- and for what it's worth, the majority of us who were Catholic certainly didn't act in the way the Magesterium would have wanted us to; if you know what I mean.

We don't need the aggravation right now, especially now that we're in recession. We should be building up the health, education and welfare systems we currently have.

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

US Census Bureau tells off gay couples

The US Census Bureau confirmed today that it will not allow Americans to say if they are in a gay or lesbian marriage -- in fact, it doesn't even recognize opposite sex common law partnerships at the federal level (downgrading a common law husband or wife to a "domestic partner"), although a dozen or so states do.

Canada does both, federally and in all provinces and territories. Whether one agrees with the practices or not, they're part of our society and most of us accept it as such; and I think it's something to celebrate. Families come in all shapes and sizes and in differing forms and policy makers, as well as the rest of us, have the right to know how many of each kind of family are out there.

Not to mention the entitlement benefits that come with living with someone, be they of the same or opposite sex.

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Gore: the 100% solution

First, it was T. Boone Pickens. Now, Al Gore has thrown down the gauntlet and urged the US to convert to 100% electricity production from renewable sources over the next 10 years.

This is extremely ambitious. It's more likely we could get to 50% renewables, or maybe even just a third, over the next ten years. But it's clear if we don't start now, we never will; and the mainline oil and coal industries are paying millions in ads to make sure the world never does.

It's not that hard to find places where there is sustained winds. It's not just in the Great Plains; it's also in the areas where they mine for coal, usually in mountains. Where there are mountains, there are usually winds -- heavy winds. Anyone who's driven through the Appalachians knows what I'm talking about. And the sun -- why aren't we using it more? It's now possible to store the heat from the sun (creating steam) and use that to keep generators going on cloudy days.

Still, Gore may have the weight of leaders who've had enough of the old ways, behind him. If he can put together a motley collection of people like Newt Gingrich and Nancy Pelosi, Pat Robertson and Al Sharpton, and if enough people from both sides of the aisle make this a moral challenge -- that the money going overseas to build the skylines of Abu Dhabi, Dubai and other sheikhdoms should instead go to powering the homeland then both the environmental challenge as well as the national security challenge can both be resolved.

No question, Gore is advocating tough choices ... but who said anything was ever easy?

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Mo' Money? Yes, but ...

The new Ontario Child Benefit kicks in next week, and it will over the next four years mean substantially more money for lower income families to help lift them out of poverty. It starts at up to $50 per month -- which will be put on top of the federal benefit, as most provinces do with their supplements -- and will increase to $92 by 2011, with the usual clawbacks based on net income.

Many on welfare, though, are up in arms that the traditional back to school and winter clothing allowances are being eliminated -- even though the packet they are getting amounts to more money during the year, than they would have received had the allowances stayed in place. I can understand why parents would be upset about this, but I personally think that having cost certainty and a steady flow of monthly benefits is better than getting lump sums which tend to encourage irresponsible spending.

Some major cities are stepping up with bonuses of their own for people on welfare. They can do this because the benefit actually represents an uploading of services from the local level to the provincial. Smaller communities with smaller property tax bases, obviously, cannot afford to do so; and I do think there is an argument that more can be done and the allowances paid made larger. Overall, and despite the concerns, I think that overall the benefit is a step in the right direction and puts Ontario in line with the other provinces for a change.

I still think the feds have to do their part and make the portion that is fully taxable, tax free. 97% of families -- those with combined incomes under $100k -- would not lose a single penny if this was done; in fact most would get more. If this government supports "family values" then it should value families and give them the break they need. I believe no family under that income threshold and with children under seven should pay any net taxes at all; and those with kids between seven and eighteen should see a net reduction in their income taxes in the range of 50%. Children, along with seniors, should always be our top priority.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Colombia sullies Red Cross

The government of Colombia admitted today that one of the squad that rescued 15 hostages from the FARC, including Ingrid Betancourt, wore the symbol of the International Committee of the Red Cross. This is, believe it or not, a war crime, a violation of the Geneva Conventions which insist that the symbols of the ICRC may only be worn by Red Cross / Red Crescent personnel as a sign of their neutrality in conflicts -- the only soldiers permitted to wear the symbol are actual medics on duty carrying out their medical roles.

This sets a very dangerous precedent, even if it was as the Colombian government insists "an accident" and the soldier who donned the "Geneva International Committee" logo did so despite orders not to do so. Those responsible should be held accountable. We make contributions to the Red Cross in the knowledge that the money will go to the greatest need regardless of religion or political stance of the ultimate recipient. That standard should be held up to the utmost just as we insist the rules of war under the Geneva Conventions are upheld to the utmost also.

That we should be thankful that the hostages were rescued is beyond question. But even hostage rescuers have to play by the rules.

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What part of "neutral" do the Conservatives not understand?

The ongoing saga between the Chief Electoral Officer and the Conservative Party is getting to the point of incredulity. For the second straight day, Con MPs at the House of Commons Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics Committee have accused the official -- the servant of the House, not the government -- of being biased in favour of the Liberals. This relates to the ongoing investigation into the "in and out" allegations where it is alleged official spending rules were circumvented and the national party spent over its limit by $1.3 million by monies that had been floated out to local campaigns then back again to headquarters. (No transcripts have been posted at the committee's website yet -- for shame).

As usual, we're getting the usual Karl Rove finger pointing from Republican Lite. No doubt the Liberals aren't totally clean when it comes to musical chairs -- if memory serves over a million dollars had to be paid back to the taxpayer from the sponsorship scandal when it became apparent some of the money from Sponsorgate was embezzled into Liberal coffers. But we're dealing with the most recent general election and the attitude we're getting is coming down to, "We didn't break any rules; but so what if we broke the law, even if we did, at least the Liberals lost."

Sorry, but rules are rules. They're made for everyone and are there to ensure everyone has an equal chance of getting elected. If someone got elected because of some extra advertising that was outside the rules, then the elected candidate should be disqualified and the second place candidate declared the winner by default. It's as simple as that.

Unlike the United States where the person in charge of running and auditing elections is a partisan official -- and we've seen how that works in Florida and Ohio -- Canada, like most democracies, make the job a deliberately non-partisan official and by law must be neutral. By custom, it is the Prime Minister that nominates a candidate (after consulting with the opposition parties) but it is the House of Commons as a whole that formally confirms the Chief Electoral Officer. We want someone above politics, and usually someone who's been relatively outside the political fray although he or she knows how to play the percentages as they say. The previous incumbent, Jean-Pierre Kingsley, was a health administrator. The present officer, Marc Mayrand, last served as the federal Bankruptcy Superintendent.

Therefore, it is irrelevant that Harper nominated Mayrand (such choice ratified by the House). Once appointed, the Chief (along with the Information and Privacy Commissioners, the Auditor General and the Parliamentary Librarian) becomes the employee of the House of Commons and not the government in power. It is a neutral position, on purpose.

The post is important enough that the lucky man or woman gets to serve until age sixty-five (unless he or she retires or is impeached for lack of "good behaviour"). The chief is also only one of two Canadians (the other is the Chief's deputy) who are stripped of their right to vote. (The Governor General technically can vote, but doesn't to retain the same essence of neutrality.)

If bias can be shown, truly demonstrated, I'd like to see the Conservatives demonstrate proof of this. Far as I can see, like his predecessors, Mayrand is doing his job exactly as prescribed. If anyone from any party shows irregularities or are late in filing their returns, he pounces on them regardless of party. That so many from one party -- in this case the ruling party -- are being called out should send the message that someone is taking this very seriously. If the Conservatives' claim that this is always the way it's been done (the Aunt Myrtle etiquette excuse) can be proved with precedent from previous Liberal and Progressive Conservative regimes then close the loophole.

Otherwise, butter up and face the music, just as we Liberals did 2½ years ago.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Would we treat our prisoners this way (if the interview happened in Canada)?

There simply are no words to describe this. To be fair, it is not the US government's interrogators at Gitmo but officials from Canada's spy agency debriefing Omar Khadr; but whether or not one believes the allegations against Khadr this is no way to treat a detained suspect.

It should surprise no one that the government of PMS is taking the position they did, that since the questioning took place under a Liberal government it's not their problem. That's not how ministerial responsibility is supposed to work. The incumbent minister in charge, regardless of party and regardless of what position they held previously, steps up to the plate. By refusing to acknowledge the problem, the Harper government is in contempt of the Constitution.

If this is what showed up on tape you can only imagine what the commandants at Gitmo did behind closed doors, as detainee after detainee have alleged. There is no doubt in my mind that if Harper asked for Khadr to be released into Canada's custody so he could face a fair trial here, he would be.

It is time to heed the rising voices of Canadians. Harper may not want to listen but he will have no choice but to hear the sounds that will only get louder in the coming days and weeks.

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The pack of peppers T. Boone Pickens picked

Have any of you seen the series of ads that began airing last week, the ones with Texas oil baron T. Boone Pickens? This is the same guy who funded the phony baloney Swift Boat campaign four years ago against John Kerry; and who has offered a million bucks to anyone who can prove him wrong (unclaimed as of yet).

The new advertisments point to the fact that the civil wars in Iraq and in other troubled places is why oil is so expensive right now, as well as the disturbing detail that America now imports 70% of its oil and $700 billion per year are flowing out to the Middle East. Pickens invites viewers to go to his website and view his plan to save the American economy.

I looked at it last night and it is a rather interesting concept. Pickens accepts at full value the concept of "peak oil" and says the world actually hit that point in 2005 -- ahead of the mark even many environmentalists have suggested, somewhere between this year and 2011. He points out that 23% of power plants use natural gas and the penetration rate in automobiles is less than one percent. He suggests more cars and trucks produced be converted to NG, much in the way many municipal and commercial fleets have been, to take advantage of the gas already being piped out. That in itself would cut the import rate to about 60%. The natural gas would be diverted from current NG plants.

To cover the obvious shortage in power that would result, Pickens suggests the solution lies in solar and wind power. There is of course plenty of sun in the Southwest. Up the middle of America, through the Great Plains, he says the sustained winds are sufficient to power the country and then some with the ability to send power both east and west. (That's an interesting point when one considers that the eastern and western halves of North America are actually two completely separate power grids, with only one interconnect between them somewhere in Kansas.)

Pickens is saying that he's going to round out the rest of his ideas in the coming weeks leading up to Election Day and is saying the environment and energy independence has to be his country's number one priority. Say what you will about the rest of his politics, this is a guy who's thinking ahead of the curve and outside the box -- especially for someone who's spend nearly all of his 80 years on the oil patch. I give him credit for reopening the issue and taking on both parties in such a dramatic fashion. This is a direct challenge to King Coal which is spending zillions on their subtle ad campaign to ensure America chokes well into the 27th century compared to Pickens who is spending a relatively paltry $5 million. But the future for jobs in America will be jobs that come from responsible choices.

I look forward to seeing what McCain and Obama think of solar and wind.

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Monday, July 14, 2008

Hate group protesting Tony Snow's funeral

The Westboro "Baptist Church" may be free under the First Amendment to promote their hateful agenda which includes but is not limited to their stance against homosexuals; but their plans to picket the funeral of former Fox News Washington bureau chief Tony Snow is beyond despicable. That even the right wing NewsBusters is up in arms about this (where I pulled the story) shows you just how out place the WBC is. For God's sake, the man died from cancer. One out of three people in North America get cancer. The family deserves the right to mourn in peace.

If Dubya has any decency, he'll revoke the tax-exempt status of the group -- like, as of last week.

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This Bud's for Belgium

After weeks of saying it would not due so, and its most recent advertising campaign which was decidedly jingoistic, Anheuser-Busch finally caved in early this morning and agreed to a buyout by Interbrew Beverages -- commonly known as InBev -- of Belgium. The price: $52 billion.

The merger brings a number of the biggest brands in the US including Budweiser and Michelob into a family that includies Stella Artois, Becks and Labatts, and possibly Corona as well (depending on how a dispute on the stake Bud has is resolved). It probably won't affect jobs in the United States as InBev doesn't currently have any American plants. But one can probably say goodbye to the Clydesdale horses and other public relations fronts as the boys from Leuven decide it's "fluff" in the name of cost-cutting.

I haven't had much alcohol as of late so as to discourage my father from drinking -- he can't with all the medication he's on for his multiple health issues. But it's megacompanies like this that make me want to flee to the microbrewers and their products -- small businesses which actually make beer, not just alcohol enhanced water.

One of the big winners: Cindy McCain, John's wife, who owns a significant minority stake and whose company distributes Anheuser products. She reports her stock is worth a million dollars as of the end of last year but many think it's way more than that; and the addition of the brands from Europe and South America will raise her income even more, potentially making her the real power behind the throne just like Dick Cheney and his phony blind trust that handles his Halliburton stock.

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Sudan's leader: War Criminal

In an unpredecented move, the permanent International War Crimes Tribunal will today officially charge the President of Sudan with war crimes. We've known about this since Friday, although the imprimatur comes this morning. It's about damn time -- but it won't do a thing to solve the crisis in Darfur.

It is more than obvious that the neglect and even outright prejudice of the West allowed the situations in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda to escalate into the genocides that they became. The same is true for Darfur, especially considering the fact that the civil war there is between rival Muslim factions and not the traditional holy war between Christians and Muslims.

Naturally, Sudan refuses to recognize the legitimacy of the International Criminal Court and is warning any attempts to arrest Omar Hassan al-Bashir will only make things in Darfur even worse; of course Sudan won't allow the joint African Union / UN peacekeeping mission have its full compliment of 45,000 instead of just the 9,000 that are there right now.

Some have warned that this move pretty much shuts the door on any hopes for Darfur as well as any hopes for Sudan as a whole. The fact is, though, Sudan is as failed a state as Somalia has been for nearly two decades; in fact it ranks number one on the list of the worst countries in the world when it comes to an effective functioning central government, just slightly ahead of Iraq, Somalia and Zimbabwe. (Canada, incidentally, is the 10th least worst; the United States is 18th.)

In my opinion, doing nothing isn't helping Darfur. I can't see how picking up al-Bashir could make things any worse; in fact that so many villages in just the last few weeks have been torched on purpose and even more refugees created convinces me it can't get much worse.

We need to take a stand on this, and there is a first time for everything. It is only fitting that al-Bashir is the first given his unapologetic unstabilizing of not just his country but the entire region. The traditional stance of non-interference in another's affairs goes out the window when a leader refuses to recognize even the basic human rights of minorities.

Does that mean George W. Bush is next to be called out? Well, al-Bashir does set the precedent; and it's true that if there had been no war in Iraq, over a half million would not have died. Gitmo, among other suspensions of human rights, violates every rule of the rules of war.

But the chances Dubya will be charged with war crimes is next to nil. After all, America does remain a democracy with a mostly independent judiciary, albeit both still a feeble one at present and there's no indication that the incumbent intends to invoke martial law to prevent either Obama or McCain from assuming the White House next year.

Al-Bashir, on the other hand, intends to stay in power by any means necessary even if it means killing 2 million at a time. I do wonder if the attitude in the US would be different if Katrina had actually killed a million people, rather than just 1000 with 1 million refugees.

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Sunday, July 13, 2008

Italian loses driver's license -- because he's gay

I thought Europe was more enlightened than this.

A man going through a routine medical for the Italian military told his examiners he was gay. The information was passed on to the DMV, who then told the man he had to repeat his driving test due to a "sexual identity disturbance." When he did pass the test for a second time, his license was renewed for only one year and not the usual ten.

A court in Sicily threw the book at the authorities and ordered them to pay the man €100,000 (USD 158,770) in damages saying homosexuality is not a mental illness.

Of course it isn't. If only PMS and his cronies were so enlightened. Well, they aren't -- many of them are old Alberta SoCreds which supported the sterlization of homosexuals as state policy well into the 1960s; and would gladly invoke the notwithstanding clause to resume the practise if they had the chance.

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Saturday, July 12, 2008

Reid Scott makes shift to Liberals

The Liberals have, to be honest, over the last few years seen a slow drip of people leaving the party due to scandal and a lack of focused leadership. Stéphane Dion's proposals on the environment may have finally stopped that. But even I wasn't expecting that a titan of the NDP, Reid Scott, would quit his old party and join the Liberals.

Mind you it will take more than an influential statesperson and former judge in the prime of his life to create the tidal wave needed to bring the Liberals back into power. However, the main point is that Dion has gotten Canadians talking about the choices we have to make. PMS' performance at the G8 summit, which I would call a non-performance at all, proves he has nothing left on his agenda other than those three famous words: "I'll Sue Ya." To win Scott over may be a moral victory since it doesn't affect the seating arrangement in Parliament all, but it's a victory nonetheless. Still, Dion needs to focus on getting people of younger generations who may be wavering to join his team -- losing Outremont to Tom Mulcair some months ago underscores this point.

As for the traditional left-wing grouping in Canada: Wither the NDP? Hardly ... but it should be worried if it continues to lose support not to the Liberal Party but to the Greens. In marginal races, a shift of just a few hundred votes may be enough to give some districts over to the Liberals. At that point the socialists may very well wonder why they didn't insist on PR during the last Parliament instead of a budget amendment ... because in the long run rep by pop may be the only thing to ensure the long term survival of all parties no matter where they are on the spectrum.

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Morning whip (07/12/08)

Breaking news this morning: Tony Snow, former host of Fox News Sunday as well as press secretary under Dubya, died after a second bout with cancer at the age of 53. Love him or hate him there seems to be something totally unfair about a family guy dying. To see him exit stage left so soon after Tim Russert died is almost a slap to the face of news junkies. Obviously my prayers are with his family at this difficult time.

Also dead is Michael DeBakey, the famous heart surgeon, at 99. (Why couldn't he make 100?) He pioneered heart bypass surgery and invented the roller pump and 70 plus other medical instruments commonly used today. Well into the final decade of his life, he was still an active physician, performing a bypass operation on no less than Jerry Lewis two years ago. A life well lived should be rewarded in the hereafter.

Russia and China vetoed comprehensive sanctions against Zimbabwe, in particular the senior leadership there. No surprise there since both countries themselves are dictatorships ... and it sends a very poor signal as we're less than 30 days before the Olympics in Beijing. Clearly Mugabe is being given open license to do whatever the eff he wants. I've said it before and I'll say it again, if someone actually succeeds in bumping him I will not shed a single tear.

Finally, one of the largest mortgage lenders in the US, IndyMac (Independent National Mortgage Corporation) and once part of the troubled Countrywide Group, had its assets seized by federal authorities late last night after a $1.3 billion run on the bank in the last 11 days. The vast majority of depositors have less than $100,000 so are covered by deposit insurance (and those who have more than that will get 50 cents on the dollar on the excess); but this is the second largest failure of a financial institution in the country's history. How a company that was worth $40 billion on the books just three months ago could melt down so quickly is no longer remarkable; it is becoming part for the course.

Many will remember that when a large number of savings and loans (set up rather similar to a credit union, or a building society in the UK; although many have demutualized and have gone public) went under, that one of the deposit insurance set-ups -- the one protecting savings and loans -- itself went bankrupt and was forced to merge with the larger FDIC (which once covered the rear ends of only banks).

Financial institutions are much less regulated in the States than they are in Canada so we may see a bit of a domino effect as some more hailstones hit the ground. More than a few and even the FDIC may be endangered. And since we tend to follow US trends quite a bit, I expect the same to happen in Canada?

So what to do to stem the danger here? Some years ago, the Senate of Canada recommended our deposit insurance system go to a model of "co-insurance" whereby a somewhat larger amount would be guaranteed but if a bank or trust company went under the customer might forfeit some of the deposited amount, say 5%. We did the one thing -- raising the guaranteed amount from $60k to $100k to match the US threshold -- but did nothing about the co-insurance part. It's certainly worth considering. It would require a revamp of CDIC as we know it but to just do nothing is wrong.

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Friday, July 11, 2008

Enough of those stupid Nigeria 419 e-mails!

Going through my personal e-mail this morning, I found one of those cute West African scam letters -- you know, the kind where there are millions of "unclaimed" dollars and they're willing to cut you in on 30% or more of the take if you only take certain steps to "co-operate."

I've had several of these as of late. Usually, I've just deleted them. But the tone of this one -- allegedly from Burkina Faso -- made me reach the breaking point. So I decided to forward it to PhoneBusters, a project here in Canada run by a number of police agencies including the Mounties.

If you get something like that here in Canada, make sure to mark it as spam (if your e-mail filter already didn't) then forward it to wafl [at] -- they're always looking for new variants on the scam and need all the help they can get; or alternately call the Mounties. In the States, report it to the Secret Service. Elsewhere report it to the relevant national authorities.

I for one am sick and tired of these e-mails and letters. ISPs and general e-mail providers should be doing more to stop them. I don't need your money that doesn't exist, I don't need any of your male enhancement pills and I certainly don't need to refinance at 600% interest per week. Now that we're clear on that, regular blogging resumes ...

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Fannie and Freddie to get bought out?

I commented earlier in the week on the problems Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are facing; problems which were long-standing but which have been snowballing as of late. Today's huge price drop in both stocks on top of cumulative losses so far this year point to a key fault in both institutions: They don't have enough cash reserves to even cover the debt they current carry or guarantee. While still above their 52 week lows they are about 90% off their 52 week high. If the feds have to take over the 2 F's (double entendre intended), that will affect the value of government bonds (both the coupon bonds as well as savings bonds) which will be even less trustworthy than they are now.

Also this week, the primary guarantor of mortgages in Canada, CMHC, said they would no longer back 40 year mortgages (setting a maximum of 35 years for amortization) and said also they would insist on a 5% down payment, a partial reversal on 100% mortgages with no money down but still only half-way to the old 90/10 rule.

In my opinion, even 25 years (the traditional amortization in Canada) is way too long. If you can't afford to pay off the mortgage in only 15 years you need to look for a smaller house. Especially here where mortgage interest is not tax deductible, having a shorter payoff period frees up capital for other borrowers much sooner as well as saves tens of thousands in interest.

This should be the rule, in my opinion: 15 years, tops. Older mortgages would be grandfathered, of course, but new ones would be bound by stricter new rules and they should stick.

As far as the US goes, the tax code is due for a huge overhaul. And getting rid of the mortgage interest tax deductible status would be an important first step in restoring sanity in the housing and stock markets as well -- the amount of money lost from the Treasury every year could very well balance the budget and then some. Two decades ago Congress eliminated the deduction of sales tax on cars and trucks (which led to a short-term flurry of sales in Cadillacs and Lincolns before time ran out).

If they could do it for cars they certainly can do it for houses. When Ontario was given the choice on deducting interest on mortgages we rejected it out of hand at the ballot box because we knew we simply couldn't afford it. America certainly can't anymore, especially with the default rate as high as it is.

And it goes without saying: Get the eff out of Iraq. Don't even wait for the election. Restoring confidence in federal debt is a major first step in restoring confidence in the credit markets.

UPDATE (4:07 PM EDT, 2007 GMT): Ben Bernacke, the Fed Chair, announced Freddie and Fannie will be able to access the "discount window" on the same basis as banks and brokerage firms. If it's gotten that bad ... I don't know how to finish this sentence.

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Get Khadr out of Gitmo, now

I am not writing this post as a response to a comment on my last one. I am writing this because like most rank-and-file Liberals who -- like the vast majority of Canadians -- support due process, I am furious that Omar Khadr was with the complicity of Chrétien and Martin sent to Guantanamo Bay and thrust into a kangeroo court process. I am angry that the UK and Australia were able to successfully lobby the States to have their detainees transferred for trials in their home countries but Canada hasn't lifted a finger all this time -- and that Stephen Harper isn't going to do shit either.

No doubt, Omar Khadr's relatives back home in Canada have said some outrageous things including expressing their support for what happened on 9/11; suggesting those in the Twin Towers deserved to die because they were paying taxes to an interventionist government. One cannot associate guilt from one part of the family and impune the other. The fact he urinated on a family photo should say a lot.

Put Khadr in a real trial, whether in a US or a Canadian court -- not the phony "military commissions" in Cuba. But simply saying one has "reassurances" there will be a fair hearing is not enough. Obviously, the current and former PMs must think that Truscott, Marshall, Milgaard, Morin, Sophonow etc. are still guilty, otherwise we wouldn't have this fucking attitude problem with whomever sits in the PMO.

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Jesse Jackson's big fat mouth

There was a time when the Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke, people listened. Despite his many faults many saw him, alongside the Rev. Billy Graham, as one of America's moral leaders. But as time has changed and moved, it seems that Jackson has stood still. This past weekend during a taping of an interview with Fox News, Jackson actually said on a "hot" mike: "See, Barack's been talking down to black people ... I want to cut his nuts off."

When confronted with the smoking gun, Jackson was forced to apologize. Even his son, Jesse Jackson Jr. said such comments were out of line. The fact they were made shows a total disconect between a large swath of the leadership in the black community, and the reality on the ground.

Obama's campaign accepted the apology but refused to back down on the main point at hand. Bill Burton said:

As someone who grew up without a father in the home, Senator Obama has spoken and written for many years about the issue of parental responsibility, including the importance of fathers participating in their children's lives. He also discusses our responsibility as a society to provide jobs, justice, and opportunity for all. He will continue to speak out about our responsibilities to ourselves and each other, and he of course accepts Reverend Jackson's apology.

The great civil rights leaders, such as Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and James Meredith didn't fight for equal rights so their people could be slackers. They fought for equal opportunities to lift their people up but also insisted that blacks comply with the same general ethical standards of hard work and family values as everyone else and to act appropriately in general. For example, when both whites and blacks defiantly sat together at segregated lunch counters, Dr. King said that the protestors should be dressed as if working in a business office so as to better underscore their point about equal service. Does anyone think they would have won if they instead had shown up in halter tops and half broken t-shirts, short shorts and flip flops?

Right. No one would have taken them seriously.

What Barack Obama, as well as Bill Cosby and other enlightened people have been talking about, is assuming responsibility. They're insisting, correctly, that a lot of the social problems facing their community are self-inflicted. It's important to talk about how to fix the economy and to address the remaining remnants of racism, of course; but to blame the economy for all black people's woes is just as silly as the white majority blaming violence and drugs on television for an alleged increase in such problems in the real world. After all, other countries have disaffected youth and family breakdowns and no one blames television there for an increase in adultery.

It really does start with the home. Parents instilling values instead of letting television do that. Parents living up to their responsibilities as parents whether they are married, divorced or single. Teachers, ministers, physicians acting as early warning systems to flag potential trouble spots. And, Bill Cosby is absolutely right about this, an insistence people use proper language and spelling rather than "ebonics" or other forms of slang.

I really don't know what possessed Jackson to say what he did. Maybe it's latent resentment that one of the finalists for US President this fall succeeded in the self-reliance mode of Malcolm X and not the world view of Martin Luther King that Jackson has sadly misrepresented, then turns around and "acts white."

As Obama said, "[W]hat makes you a man is not the ability to have a child -- it's the courage to raise one." It's important to fight for social justice and equal opportunities, but it's also important to fight for strong families. Neither can exist while the other is lacking. As for Obama's "acting white" -- I haven't seen too many whites acting white lately; especially not George W. Bush.

Rev. Jackson would be well advised to demanding responsiblity from his followers -- especially after he himself was caught having an affair, during the time he was advising Bill Clinton after Slick admitted he cheated. Some role models, eh? At least Jackson's kids were all grown up by that time, but Chelsea Clinton was still a teenager and was as humiliated as her mother was by the scandal. At least she turned out okay. A lot of kids from households that have been so contaminated don't. Obama should continue to stay the course and stand up for families.

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